In Gratitude for Neil: Everyday Magic, Day 917

Neil, bottom left, last Hanukkah

In memory of Neil Salkind, who died today.

We sat at a small table in La Prima Tassa on a spring day filtering sunshine across our table, sipping tea and updating each other on our children. “Hey Pal, the thing is,” Neil said, “I want them to be happy. My job is simply to love them. That’s what we do as parents: we love them and want them to be happy.” I had just been inventorying my long list of anxieties about my kids when Neil’s words stopped me in my tracks. Yes, he was right, and I remembered his words a thousand and one times, reminding me how simple, and also at times, difficult it can be to love our children without any expectation but for their happiness.

I met Neil I-don’t-know-when through the Jewish center, probably in ’83 or so, and we immediately connected. We were both from Jersey, and the tone of his voice and his sense of humor felt like home to me. I looked for him during services and the annual Blintz Brunch, happy to simply be in his good humored company, laughing about whatever we could laugh about, which was almost everything, and occasionally sneaking in short in-depth talks about what matters in life, and what doesn’t. Neil wasn’t one for gossip, and instead directed his big energy toward what he loved: his work, his community, and especially his wife and children.

Neil was over the moon and past this solar system in love with Leni, his wife of over 49 years. They were the most affectionate couple I saw, whether sitting side by side for High Holidays, holding hands, leaning in to share a thought or memory, or around their home where Neil specialized in amazing cooking and baking (oh, his challah!). He adored Leni – her style, her stories, her art, her way of being in the world, and through his adoration he modeled for us a way to always show gratitude and wonder toward our beloveds. He also was enthralled with his kids Micah (and Micah’s husband) and Sara, and he reveled in their adventures, friendships, and accomplishments.

I also knew another angle of Neil: he was my literary agent before he retired from the grind, hustle, and thrill of making deals. He got Needle in the Bone, my non-fiction book about Lou Frydman and Jarek Piekalkiewicz, published by the University of Nebraska Press, and he also tried valiantly to find Stephen Locke and me a publisher for Chasing Weather, our storm poetry and photography book. In the years we worked together in the book biz, he was consistently cheerful, supportive, and upbeat. We would do what we could, and he would bring great enthusiasm to the literary agenting, which he did.

He brought such enthusiasm to all aspects of his life, from setting out (with two other families) a huge spread for an annual Rosh Hashana community gathering held for years in his home to swimming competitively and in friendship with a long-time group of friends.

Then there’s Neil, the printer. Neil bought some old presses Ken’s dad, also a printer, collected, and he printed gorgeous letter-press broadsides with hand-set type. Recently, he did an beautiful and limited editing printing of a poem by Beth Schultz about the Jewish cemetery in Eudora. He printed my poem “Entering the Days of Awe” to sell as a fundraiser for the Jewish center as well as my poem “In Gratitude” as a fundraiser for the Transformative Language Arts Network.

Thinking of his work in printing “In Gratitude,” I’m struck by how Neil embodied a grateful life: he truly relished his connections with his friends, his community, his work (which was vast and off-the-charts successful as a professor, writer, literary agent, and many other roles), and especially his dearest beloveds. I’m grateful for what he showed me about living a grateful life, and for each conversation over coffee, lunch, or in the back of the synagogue, each hug, each time he called me “pal.” Here’s the poem he set and printed, which speaks of Neil’s legacy:

In Gratitude

The wind thanks you, unfurling over the worn

horizon so it can billow into night. The stars too,

whether talismans of light dying or just being born,

behind the small birds arriving or staying behind,

who balance gratefully on thin branches of coming winter.

The squirrel in the field, the hidden fox, the mammals

under and overground. The world is composed,

is composing itself anew even in a narrow time:

just before the red-winged blackbird folds

back in silhouette. Whatever act of kindness flies

lands in the heart of a moment, a seasonal marker

to illuminate why we live, a song of gratitude.

At breakfast at the Swedish Country Inn in Lindsborg, Kansas, someone said she liked my tiny gold Dala horse necklace. It took me a moment to realize that the C’hai — the Jewish symbol for life, luck, the auspicious number 18, and also the Hebrew letter C’hai — looks just a little like the Swedish Dala horse, a symbol of Swedish hospitality. I explained the C’hai to her, then dug into some Swedish meatballs, pickled herring, and rye bread.

Ken and I having decided to spend some time in this charming town after a gig in  equally lovely Glasco, Kansas, where I got to see one of my favorite Dala horses in Lindsborg. Every few feet there seems to be another Dala horse painted in wild and artsy ways instead of in traditional red. As someone who loves language, even punctuation, talking on the phone, and the Dalai Lama, my Dala of choice is the Dala-Lama-Tele-Comma. I rode the mighty steed nowhere before we went for dinner.

A day later, back in Lawrence, I was taking off a scarf while driving and accidentally snapped my C’hai off its chain. I caught the C’hai, then had to decide where to put it until I got it home and could put it back on my necklace. I considered my pocket, but decided against it. Small objects that go there often end up in the laundry where they travel to a place beyond human contact, the island of self-liberated socks. So instead I put the C’hai in a plastic bottle cap on a flat surface in the car and drove on.

Once home, wouldn’t you know it? The C’hai (and bottle cap) were gone. I took apart the car, pulling out rugs, removing a great many cough drop wrappers and pencils from under seats, and searching in every nook and cranny I could find on the car floor, alternating which door I opened to see how far the C’hai had flown. With a video meeting for work looming, I eventually had to stop and go inside for an hour, but as soon as I was done, I went back to the car.

I was worried more than about losing the jewelry. My mom had given me this C’hai when I was diagnosed with cancer in 2002, and I’ve worn it almost all the time since then, a talisman remembering me to life in my mind. What would losing it mean? I told myself it was silly to think a vanished C’hai meant cancer would return, and perhaps I had arrived at the time when I no longer needed to wear the C’hai, but I also know my rationalization was as shaky as my magical thinking.

When I opened the passenger door, there, right on the floor and in plain sight, was the C’hai, having dropped out from a floor carpet I had shaken. A C’hai may not be a Dala horse, but it turns out to have its own legs.

Photo by Stephen Locke, used with permission

The kids were already in the front seats when I arrived at the Coffey County Library branch in Gridley, Kansas to present “Kansas Weather in Life, Literature, and Photography,” a Kansas Humanities Council (KHC) program. In this town of 341 people, the library is the place to be, and not just for kids. By the time I began, people aged 9 to 90 filled seats, ready to take in Kansas poetry and photography (via Stephen Locke) about how our extreme weather shapes our lives and builds our character. We also shared their stories of communities coming together in the face of wild storms, close calls, beautiful vistas, and what our weather tells us about who we all.

One of many KHC programs, Water/Ways focuses on the impact of water (and by extension, weather) on our history, traditions, daily lives, and in the face of climate change, our very future. Such programs also bring together communities, helping us find the essential dialogue, diversity, and unity that is the bedrock of democracy.

Now a wild storm is threatening all of America, especially far-flung rural areas where there is little to no funding for arts and humanities programs except from state humanities councils. With the current U.S. president calling for eliminating the National Endowment for the Humanities, programs like the one I just did, that bring together people to share stories of hard-won wisdom and emerging visions, would vanish. As well, we would lose initiatives such as KHC’s “Migration Stories” on the experience of Africans in Midwestern communities, “Freedom of Speech in Kansas” on the importance of free speech,  “FLIKS” promoting short documentaries on unique stories in our state, a vibrant speaker’s bureau, a long-standing book discussion program that has reached people in every corner of the state, and the state poet laureate program (which is completely funded by private donors).

I’ve had the honor of being roving scholar with KHC since 1994, as a book discussion leader, speaker’s bureau presenter, and the 2009-13 Kansas poet laureate. Living in a 400-mile-wide state, I’ve rambled many miles to talk about everything from Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God to David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars, books that give us intimate portraits of American history, from African-American communities in the Everglades in the 1920s (Huston), to Japanese-American communities before, during and after internment in the 1940s (Guterson). Such discussions help all of us grapple with our collective identity as Americans.

I’ve driven through snowstorms and ecstatic displays of lighting, up and down the Flint Hills by starlight, and across the high plains on startlingly bright mornings to meet Kansans of all ages eager to talk about what the humanities tell them of how to live with greater verve and meaning. In traveling far and wide to also talk about books with Jewish content, such as Alfred Kazin’s Walker in the City, I’ve shared traditions and history of my own faith, and by extension, participated in powerful interfaith dialogues about life and literature.

I’m a humanities scholar because I believe in face-to-face dialogue, community-building that includes many perspectives, and intergenerational exchanges about lessons learned or ahead of us. I love how humanities councils enable us to mek connections between urban and rural residents, and people of various faiths, ethnicities, and histories so that we can truly engage in forming “a more perfect union,” as stated in the preamble to our constitution:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

To keep forming that more perfect union–along with safeguarding justice, tranquility, liberty, and yes, even prosperity–we must save the humanities, which provide us the gathering ground to more deeply understand our birthright along with ways to learn how to better be true to ourselves and our communities.

If you believe in the humanities–in other words, please contact your legislators today. Here’s a link to find contact information. And join us at humanities programs wherever you live: here’s a link to find your state humanities council. It’s so easy to tear down programs that give us greater vision, and so hard to build such programs. Let’s not lose what helps makes us more human.

IMG_1091The old ones, and the old gospel hymns talk about going home when we die. For Jews, it’s said that we’re in limbo, not able to truly start mourning, until our beloved is buried. On Friday, when we buried Charles in his cardboard coffin, homecoming and mourning sung through the sun-lit woods and circle of friends and family.

It was one of those Kansas days when any moment of daylight would be heavy with heat and humidity although a 9 a.m. burial was more like a light sauna than what would unfold later. Many of us met at Charles  and Khabira’s house a little after 8 a.m. to load the coffin — the lid and sides covered with notes of love and thanksgiving, hearts and mountains, wings and prayers — into the back of a pick-up truck. Then Ken climbed in to sit with Charles’ body for  15-mph drive through far east Lawrence; he later said, “Charles got one last good view of the streets that he had traversed countless times.”IMG_1093

From the sweet air-conditioning of my car, I kept the radio off and sang, “Listen, listen, listen to my heart song” on the drive. It felt like Charles was all around, maybe just a little of him in the passenger seat along with bug spray, a big hat, and copies of the simple burial service we would use. Soon we were there at the edge of the cemetery that morphs into woods, a slim path leading to where Dwight put up an easel with a portrait of Charles, and a big hole in the ground next to an equally-sized pile of dirt. A crowd of friends and cemetery staff wheeled Charles into the forest where we waited.

Clumped together, the 30 or so of us plus two dogs (including Charles’ beloved Rosie), began with “Listen, listen, listen to my heart song,” one of Charles’ favorites, before Ken blessed the four directions. Then as planned with Khabira, I opened up the service for people to share whatever they wished. Some spoke of how welcome Charles made them feel like they belonged to something and someones larger than themselves. Others said if it was wasn’t for him, they wouldn’t exist, or wouldn’t exist in Kansas. One of his granddaughters spoke of him catching her baby at childbirth, and others told of how he married them. Rosie walked toward the grave site and peered in IMG_1101as did one of Charles’ great-grandsons, both curious and present. Some offered up songs; others, prayers. The humidity rose, and our faces shone in sweat, love, and sadness.

Then it was time for the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead said at burial, every Friday night at services for a year, and on the anniversary of the death for years to come to remember this beloved one. With all its “v-yisda…..” words, I’ve come to see this prayer as praise for the life force embodied as the holy, particularly this centerpiece of the prayer, translated into English:

Blessed, praised, honored, exalted, extolled, glorified, adored, and lauded be the name of the Holy Blessed One, beyond all earthly words and songs of blessing, praise, and comfort

IMG_1107Our Kaddish was coupled with a toast (featuring Scotch whiskey as Charles would want) as friends and staff lowered the coffin slowly and evenly. T.J. led a second toast, based on a Nigerian tradition, giving some of the  whiskey back to the earth or tossing it on the coffin. Meanwhile, a persistent hackberry butterfly kept alighting on Khabira’s hand or sleeve.

There was a Quaker song and of course this Sufi invocation:

Toward the One,
the Perfection of Love, Harmony, and Beauty,
the Only Being;
United with All the Illuminated Souls,
Who form the Embodiment of the Master,

IMG_1111 the Spirit of Guidance.

Now it was time to fill the grave, and as goes Jewish tradition — and ecological and communal practice — everyone was welcome to shovel or toss in dirt to fill the grave. Singing abounded as streams of sun filtered through the trees. Although the cemetery staff was ready with a small bulldozer, there was no need: most of us took to the task, and four of the guys stayed after everyone else had left to fill the hole and make sure there was even extra dirt on top for when the ground settled.

In the end, there was the beginning: we had brought Charles home, not just by putting his lovingly-decorated cardboard coffin in the ground and filling the hole, but by letting that part of us that is Charles gather itself up and share its song of its grief, sweetness, humor, joy, light, heat, and change. Mostly, we brought Charles home to us, opening the door wider to the heartbreak of him being, in this form at least, beyond reach. At the same time, Charles becomes larger and more precious. May that homecoming continue, gathering more hackberry butterflies to itself over time.

The family will be announcing the date for a celebration of Charles’ life soon, likely to be held later in July. Please consider contributing to the family’s fundraiser here to help with extra expenses and massive lost of income: https://www.mealtrain.com/trains/49gok7.

IMG_1217This week, we drove 350 miles west one day, 350 miles east the next, with a lot of darkness and light in between. Ken and I went to Colby, Kansas so I could talk about Needle in the Bone: How a Holocaust Survivor and Polish Resistance Fighter Beat the Odds and Found Each Other, the book I wrote about the lives of Lou Frydman and Jarek Piekalkiewicz.

I first presented the book to the marvelous Pioneer Memorial Library, which brought together close to 80 people in the basement for lunch and a journey into the darkness of the Holocaust and WWII, especially how both Jarek and Lou survived by their wits, unusual luck and grace, and went on to make lives of meaning in the U.S. Then it was off to the local high school, where I got to talk to 90 16- and 17-year-olds about it all again, this time focusing more on what it means to survive, the dangers of Holocaust denial, and the power of resilience.

After both talks, people came up afterwards to ask if it was painful for me to talk about this topic, which made me wonder why it isn’t. Maybe it’s because I’ve given so many talks and classes on the book since it came out three years ago, or that I’ve just numbed myself to the killing and torturing that I’m showing images of and reading excerpts about (although I tend to avoid the more horrifying details in one-time public presentations). What happened — how Lou’s father was killed during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and Jarek’s mother was shot during the Warsaw Uprising a year later — is still and will be horrendous, along with so many stories of lives cut short in brutal ways put into motion by the worst parts of humans.

Yet there is something else that I experience each time I talk about the books and the guys’ lives: that sense of blessing they gave me by entrusting me with their stories, by encouraging me to write this book and share it widely. I feel like I get to carry and display a beautiful artwork, a mosaic of broken glass threaded with deep blue, flashes of red, gold and green, altogether not quite a vase or bowl, but open to hold the remnants of lives well-lived. These remnants include Lou’s laughter as he told me about how he knew his school was taken over by Nazis because of the giant swastika flag, or Maura (Jarek’s wife) putting her arms around Lou and Jarek at our Hanukkah party years ago, saying it was good to have the lads together. There’s Jarek putting on his British corps uniform to show me it still fit, and Jane (Lou’s wife) telling her story of threading through Nazi Germany, thanks to the wits of her mother, to get from Budapest to America. I get to shepherd these stories and many more to people, some of whom have never met a Jew before, and all of whom are amazingly interested in IMG_1253what Lou, Jarek and others surviving the Holocaust and the Polish Resistance movement made of their lives. “Like a needle in the bone,” one of the high school students said when when we were talking about what most survivors of genocides carry with them. The students among him nodded in understanding, all of them attuned to how Lou and Jarek were teenagers like them during the war, and look at what these men were able to do.

On the way home, after downing some enchiladas while Ken drove, we hit the Smoky Hills at the same time sunset did, everything golden and lit from far-off light. We have hours more to drive, but I couldn’t stop taking pictures out the windows of everything illuminated, the contrast between light and dark so vivid.